Salve sponsa Dei: Leonora teaches her novices to sing

A nun teaches her student to sing, from the Guidonian hand: Ebstorf 1.2, Klosterarchiv, MS V3.

Salve sponsa Dei virgo sacra planta minorum
Tu vas munditie tu previa forma sororum
Clara tua precibus duc nos ad regna polorum.

One of the most unusual tracks on Lucrezia Borgia’s Daughter is the setting of the Magnificat antiphon for the Second Vespers of the Feast of St Clare, “Salve sponsa Dei.”  On the surface, it looks and sounds less radical than some of the other motets, but it is unique in the  known Renaissance repertoire, and potentially very important.

“Salve sponsa Dei” is what is called a tenor, or cantus firmus, motet – in which one voice sings a melody, or a repeated melodic phrase, in long note values while the others sing counterpoint against it. Usually, this cantus firmus melody is either a complete chant from the liturgy, a secular song, or a phrase built on solmization syllables (ut, re, mi etc), known as a soggetto cavato.  Often soggetto cavato syllables substituted for the syllables of a name or a phrase: la-mi-la for “Ma-ri-a,” for instance. Some of the most important composers of the sixteenth century, such as Josquin des Prez and Cipriano de Rore, wrote soggetto cavato masses – and because they were employed by the Este family, the technique became particularly associated with the musical culture of Ferrara.

Solmization was the way in which students of music learned to sing and read notation. The unique feature of “Salve sponsa Dei” is that it is built on an extended solmization melody, a soggetto cavato that persists throughout the motet. The entire antiphon text is matched to its solmization syllables: “Salve sponsa Dei” becomes “fa-re-sol-fa-re-mi,” and so on until the end. Lucrezia Borgia’s daughter, Suor Leonora d’Este, was abbess of the Clarissan convent of Corpus Domini in Ferrara. It is possible to imagine her teaching her young novices to sing with this melody, so that everyone in the convent – regardless of their musical education – could join in the musical celebration for her convent’s most important feast.

Salve sponsa Dei

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